Big Game Hunter

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Image by: Peter Holst

Layoffs, closures – it’s a lousy job market out there, right? Well, not if you’re one of Vancouver’s top executive headhunters it isn’t.

It’s just after 5 p.m. on a dreary Monday evening, and I’m sitting in the lounge at the Vancouver Marriott Pinnacle Hotel with Drew Railton of Caldwell Partners. Railton has agreed to meet me for a drink in between his last business call of the day, interviewing a CEO candidate, and the start of a fundraising dinner with the Vancouver MS Society.

Caldwell Partners is in the business of finding the most talented people for the top jobs in Canada: CEOs, CFOs, COOs, VPs – leaders who often make more money in a week than the average Canadian worker makes in a year. Started in 1970 by current chairman C. Douglas Caldwell, the firm went public in 1989 and now counts more than 100 employees in seven Canadian cities. Spending an hour answering my questions likely means Railton will have to forgo a shower and jump right into his tuxedo before he makes his way to an exclusive downtown wine bar for the evening of networking ahead. At around midnight, he’ll finally go home, pack his overnight bag and try to get three full hours of sleep before leaving to catch a 5:30 a.m. flight to Calgary, where he’s presenting a candidate for a marketing vice-president position. It’s a short trip this time, but the miles add up. He’s been on the road for 43 of the last 52 weeks – in North and South America and Europe – trying to understand the needs of Caldwell’s clients and convince qualified leaders to move to Western Canada.

The fact is, despite a struggling economy, finding top talent – especially for senior-level leadership positions – is becoming increasingly challenging. According to the Conference Board of Canada, nearly 30 per cent of Canada’s senior executives will be eligible to retire in the next three years, with relatively few people in the pipeline to replace them. The numbers balloon to 50 per cent in key industries such as education, government and health. As a result, the days when organizations could choose from a vast pool of qualified applicants eager to secure plum jobs are gone for good. “Employers used to be in the driver’s seat,” says Jay-Ann Fordy, senior vice-president of human resources at Coast Capital Savings. “Today it’s the other way around. [Hiring good people] is now much more of a sales and marketing role.”

In a 2008 survey – the first of its kind in this province – the B.C. Human Resource Management Association found that nearly 60 per cent of B.C. businesses identify recruitment as one of their three top challenges. And where 15 years ago companies could count on a crop of local talent playing for their hometown team, now a talented executive in Vancouver is just as likely to be recruited by a company in Hong Kong or Mumbai or London. This means big business for recruiting firms such as Caldwell, which have the ability to fish for sharks in ponds all across the globe.

Caldwell is the biggest Canadian search firm, but it’s still a small operation compared to the big multinationals. L.A.-based Korn/Ferry International, for instance, enjoys the largest global market share in the multibillion-dollar industry, with revenues from fees of more than $790 million in 2008, compared to Caldwell’s $17 million. Peter Felix, president of the New York-based Association of Executive Search Consultants, says the executive-search market remains strong despite the global economic downturn, especially in Canada, which has a glut of retiring baby boomers. “At the moment, the Canadian market is surprisingly insulated,” says Felix. “It is being held up by resources, and the government is still very active in the senior executive market. The fact is, there is a great shortage of qualified people in the ‘cusp’ generation” – those born approximately between 1965 and 1974, the ones assumed to take over from the boomers – “and that’s not going away because of the recession.”


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